Great Expectations: A Family for All Occasions Falls Short of Poignancy

And 'Bunty Berman Presents...' a lugubrious farce

Jeffrey DeMunn in 'A Family for All Occasions.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Jeffrey DeMunn in ‘A Family for All Occasions.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The set for A Family for All Occasions, a new play from the small Labyrinth Theater Company, is a wonder. In the tiny Bank Street Theater, where Bob Glaudini’s darkly comic drama opened Sunday night, David Meyer has built a finely detailed, deeply lived-in re-creation of a working-class family’s front room—dining table and chairs, lounger, workbench in a corner, books and tchotchkes on the shelves—in what the program tells us is a midsize Northeastern city. But the remarkable moments come, in this cramped and low-ceilinged room, when first a side wall and then, later, a back one slide away to reveal other rooms of the home. They’re unexpected discoveries, these additional spaces, and impressive, enjoyable flourishes.

Unfortunately Mr. Glaudini’s play, a sometimes intriguing but more often opaque portrait of a deeply dysfunctional family, is less revelatory than that set, and not so enjoyably fulfilling.

Howard (Jeffrey DeMunn) is a retired electrician who earns extra money repairing lamps for a local shop. He’s kindly and optimistic and always sees the best in his gruff wife and wayward kids. That wife, May (Deirdre O’Connell), a supervisor at a box factory, is perpetually tired and cranky. Howard’s two adult children from his first marriage—his wife fled the family when the kids were young—live at home and maintain sullen, aimless existences. Sam (Charlie Saxton), whom we meet first, is a schlubby tech guru who can’t or won’t get a job; instead he stays shut in his room, working on the coding project that he believes will get him a scholarship to college and fulminating about the old crappy computer he’s forced to try to do it on.

Sue (Justine Lupe), Sam’s older sister, is a party girl whom we meet after breakfast, when she comes home from a night out. She announces to Sam that a man she met the previous night might be stopping by, and then she heads for the bathtub. Soon enough, Oz (William Jackson Harper) arrives, and if it’s unclear why a man who seems to be so kind, calm, respectful and well-spoken—he “eschews” drugs, he tells Sue—would be so smitten with this aimless clubgoer, or why he would agree to a date that begins at 9 or 10 in the morning, his character at least serves an important dramaturgical purpose as the catalyst that will knock this family out of its depressive stasis.

The play is directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a Labyrinth stalwart, and he gives it a deeply naturalistic feel reminiscent of his acting: gritty, authentic, not at all showy. You hear murmurs of conversations happening just off set, you watch characters eat—and slurp—cereal. It’s an approach that lends visceral immediacy to the proceedings, as do the generally subtle and affecting performances. But it also diminishes the comedy of what could be played as a satire and instead gives A Family for All Occasions a gravitas that the material cannot quite support.

Oz, who reports that he also “eschews” alcohol, turns out to be a boon companion for the lonely older man, and the two bond over a shared love of words and books. Oz has access to wholesale electronics—never explored is how, or whether it’s entirely legal—and he soon worms his way into the family with gifts: a new computer for Sam, an iPod for the music-loving Howard, a foot massager for exhausted May. Sue’s gift is a child, apparently conceived after an odd onstage seduction. Oz’s background and motivations remain opaque, but soon enough he’s stuck in this same small house, raising a child.

The play’s climax—an entirely uncharacteristic burst of violence from Howard—feels contrived, but it also shows how a man who spends so much time trying to be positive amid unhappy circumstances must eventually release his frustration. The denouement is fitting, and sad: Sue has fled, like her mother; Sam is finally off at college; Howard and May, who is now also in retirement, are reconnecting. Oz is left to raise the baby, a new version of Howard.

The point, I suppose, is about the inevitability and repetition of life, and it could be a bracing one. Instead, A Family for All Occasions is a little like Howard: nice, well-intentioned and disappointingly ineffectual.

Bunty Berman Presents…, a new musical at the New Group, has a different ambition—to be a big, boisterous, Golden Age of Bollywood extravaganza—and it’s more of a disappointment.

Set in 1957, when Bombay moviemaking was like studio-era Hollywood, it starts off promisingly, as the opening number—“Bombay Opening,” an exuberant and silly paean to the glories of the Indian filmmaking capital—reveals bouncy music, a charmingly hammy cast and goofy, clever choreography (by Josh Prince). There are also bold, colorful, clever costumes and sets (by William Ivey Long and Derek McLane).

Soon enough, the stock characters and convolutedly mechanical plot—aping the style of 1950s Hindi films—are introduced: there’s Bunty (Ayub Khan Din), a paternal studio chief lately down on his luck and short of financing; his secretary, Dolly (Gayton Scott), secretly in love with him; his beloved, over-the-hill star, Raj (Sorab Wadia); Shambervi (Lipica Shah), the young female star with a secret past; Saleem (Nick Choksi), the tea boy in love with her; Shankar Dass (Alok Tewari), the local gangster offering a financial resource; and on and on. There are twists, turns, misunderstandings and dance numbers, and eventually everything turns out as it should.

Would that the same were true of this play, which opened last week at Theatre Row. The music, by Ayub Khan Din, the star, and Paul Bogaev, is entertaining and upbeat, more Big Band jazzy than Eastern. But Mr. Din’s book and lyrics, as directed by New Group artistic director Scott Elliott, don’t match the upbeat enthusiasm of that first number. There are a few outright groaners, like the lyric about chutzpah that prompts this exchange: “I’m Jewish.” “A Jew?” “Gesundheit.” But the larger problem is a wholesale lack of wit, pep and excitement. It’s a lugubrious farce, a sodden flight of fancy. Bunty Berman Presents… should be a luxurious immersion in the lovable excesses of Bollywood; instead, it’s just a brisk walk through Curry Hill. Great Expectations: <em>A Family for All Occasions</em> Falls Short of Poignancy